Review: 'Godspell' at Westchester Broadway Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘Godspell’ was a project for John Michael Tebelak master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970. Mr. Tebelak developed the concept of the play and a friend of the director wrote the first score that attached rock music to lyrics from hymns and psalms. After the first performances, the show was optioned for an Off-Broadway production and CMU alumnus Stephen Schwartz was hired by the producers to write a new score, one that included a variety of musical styles. 

 The biblical parables told by actors dressed like clowns were now set to music from the genres of pop, folk rock, gospel and vaudeville. Because it appealed to so many, it was an instant hit and went on to a run on Broadway, then a successful movie version in 1973, a Broadway revival in 2011 and countless community theater versions that are among my favorite shows to attend wherever it may be.

 The professional production of Godspell that recently opened at Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford NY is their 190th one and it is the new version of the score that Mr. Schwartz wrote for the 2011 revival. The fast-paced show was directed and choreographed by John Fanelli with associate director/choreographer Jonathan Stahl. Mr. Stahl was a member of the ‘98 national tour of ‘Ragtime.’ William Stanley was the musical director and conductor of the fine musicians in the pit; members of the cast accompanied themselves for the act two opener reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”

 The directors decided to include the sometimes eliminated Prologue/Tower of Babble and had the cast wear jackets and glasses with sashes indicating which philosopher they were quoting in the cacophony. It worked nicely for me. There were references during the parables to Santa Claus, ‘The Lion King,’ and Donald Trump. There was a parachute integrated into the cute choreography at one point and the storytellers headed into the audience with flashlight “spotlights” during “Light of the World.” (I remember because I sang along when the spotlight hit me.)

 The eight cast members took on the solos and there was no chorus; this felt a little small to me, especially on the decent-sized WBT stage. Including Gilbert D. Sanchez as Jesus and Xander Chauncey as both John the Baptist and Judas, there were still only ten actors onstage for the entire show. Despite that fact, the finale was pretty impressive. 

 The set designed by Steven Loftus featured a sometimes subway car and city brick walls and the ‘West Side Story’ fire escape. I would describe the costumes by Matthew Hemesath as a more contemporary clown look with a Superman tank top for Jesus. As for the sound, I noticed a few lines were delivered before microphones were turned on during this Friday evening performance.

 Mr. Sanchez was very believable in the leading role of Jesus and with good reason. His past Messiah credits include ‘Godspell,’ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ and the fourth grade Passion Play at his Catholic School. This is his WBT debut. 

 Mr. Chauncey brought both charm and villainous vibes to his longer role as Judas the betrayer. Josh Kenney sang well “Light of the World” and Kereema Castro Khouri had the perfect voice for “Bless the Lord.” Greta Kleckner sang the wonderful “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Nicholas Park did “We Beseech Thee” and Devon Perry (Dorothy in last summer’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’) sang a plaintive “By My Side.” Nathan Andrew Riley took on “All Good Gifts” and Karley Willocks was plenty sultry on “Turn Back, Oh Man.” Sarah Smithton was absolutely adorable in her 'Beetlejuice' inspired costume as she sang “Day By Day.” Kudos to all on their joyous performances.

 The evening menu for ‘Godspell’ included the show special Chicken Cordon Bleu, as well as two kinds of pollock, and the large prime rib of beef. I couldn’t finish my pollock stuffed with crab meat but my teen managed to eat all of his roasted boneless pork loin with apples. The specialty cocktail was ‘The Righteous Raspberry.’

Before the show began, the 2015 Bob Fitzsimmons Scholarship, was awarded to Andrew Leonforte, a senior at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, NY. 

Review: 'The Comedy of Errors' at Shakespeare & Company

Review: 'Pippin' National Tour at Dallas Summer Musicals